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Everything You Need to Know to (Smartly) Navigate New York City

By AFAR Editors

Sep 10, 2020

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Explore on foot. Eat at the bar. Buy same-day Broadway tickets. Tips from New Yorkers on surviving—and thriving—in NYC.

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With eight million opinionated residents and a five-borough spread, New York is one of the most kaleidoscopic cities in America. The culinary culture is as vibrant as you'd expect: a mix of multiethnic street food, Michelin-starred restaurants, diners, craft cocktail joints, and infamous dive bars. Dynamic arts offerings—anchored by Broadway and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—provide ample entertainment, while shopping ranges from top-end boutiques to handcrafted goods sold at neighborhood flea markets. NYC may be best known for indoor diversions, but active visitors will love it here, too: You can kayak in the Hudson River, walk across the magnificent bridges, and bike through verdant parks. Take a bite of the Big Apple for an electric, unforgettable experience.

When to Go

Every season in a city this active has something to recommend it, but autumn in New York—a time of year so divine that it inspired a jazz standard—is the best. When the summer heat and crowds have abated, new plays open, new art shows are mounted at Chelsea galleries and the museums, and the city feels like itself again.      

Getting Around

  • Walk. Most Manhattan neighborhoods are best explored on foot, but take the subway to travel between further-flung points. Just bring good shoes.
  • Yellow cabs, as well as Uber and Lyft, are good options, of course, but if you’re in Midtown between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., you’ll be happier taking the subway or walking. (Seriously, sitting in crosstown traffic, watching elderly pedestrians outpace your car when you’re late for a restaurant reservation or theater curtain, is miserable.)  
  • The subway is safe, easy, and convenient, besides which a ride can provide you with a  democratic and flavorful New York experience. Nowhere else will you be among so many different types of New Yorkers—a diverse populace that former mayor David Dinkins called “the beautiful mosaic.” And, another big plus, the subway’s usually the fastest option. (N.B. Affection for subways is not universal among city folk.)

Can’t Miss

  • If you plan to eat at one of the city’s big-name or smoking-hot-right-now restaurants, make reservations before you arrive. Most places take reservations through OpenTable or Resy. Don’t despair if you can’t get a table: There’s always a great restaurant right down the street.
  • Seeing a Broadway play is a kick. If you are coming for a particular show, buy tickets ahead of your visit, but if you just want the New York theater experience, same-day discounted tickets are sold at TKTS booths (in Times Square, South Street Seaport, and Lincoln Center). Most of the well-known musicals will probably travel to your hometown, so consider seeing an Off or Off Off Broadway production instead. (NYTimes or TimeOut reviews may help you decide.)
  • And, to truly experience the city, these neighborhoods are worth a deep dive.

Culture

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We New Yorkers like to think that our city is the culture capital of the world. There certainly is a lot of culture available here, but finding what speaks to you is your key to the city. You can trace your family’s immigration journey through a visit to Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and the Tenement Museum. Fans of fine art should beeline to the Met and get an eyeful of the masterpieces hung in its grand galleries or to MoMA to be wowed by modern and contemporary art sensibilities. If it’s music you seek, head to a jazz club or a comedy club in the West Village, or buy tickets to a classical concert at Carnegie Hall, or just stop and watch music in Washington Square Park. 

And look for neighborhood enclaves like Chinatown, Wall Street, Harlem, and the Garment District—these hubs do not exist simply to entertain visitors, they are thriving, self-contained cultures that you can witness during your visit here. Seeing them in action is like looking under the hood of the greater city. Culture churns here—history and art and music is made and celebrated and sometimes discarded for the next new thing. New York can be infuriating, tacky, thrilling, noisy, but it is never, ever boring.

Food and Drink

  • Tip bartenders and restaurant servers 15-20% of the bill. 
  • As mentioned above, reservations for most of the big-name restaurants are available on apps like OpenTable and Resy and should be booked ahead.  
  • If you’re traveling solo or in a pair, you can sometimes get a seat at the bar of a nice restaurant without reservations. Eating at the bar and chatting with the bartender or your fellow diners may become your favorite part of a visit. Ask them where you should eat next or what their must-see list is. 
  • Chain restaurants abound, but that’s not why you’re here. Eat at places you won’t find at home. Even street food that’s familiar—a hot dog in Central Park, a slice of pizza in the Village, a bagel on the Lower East—seems to taste better in New York. 

What the Locals Know

  • Contrary to what you may have heard, New Yorkers love to be asked for directions because they love to be considered experts. Go ahead and stop someone on the sidewalk or subway: You’ll definitely get directions, probably get an opinion, and quite possibly even get a smile.
  • Locals will ride the NYC Ferry up and down the East River for fun (no joke). The boats serve beer and wine, and passengers enjoy stunning views of Manhattan. See if you can resist falling in love with Gotham when you see the sun glinting off the skyline.
  • On subway cars, it’s rude to lean against the poles and to stand in the active doorways. 
  • Don’t accept prayer tokens from the fake monks in mustard-colored robes wandering in Midtown. It’s a scam.
  • Don’t ride in a pedicab without asking the price first. Not a scam, but shockingly expensive. 
  • If you’re going to look at your phone on the sidewalk or take a selfie, step out of the flow of foot traffic or risk being bumped into or harumphed at. Local pedestrians do not suffer the pokey or the distracted very politely.  

Local Resources

Guide Editors

Ann Shields has lived in NYC since the giddy, gritty days of the 1980s when she arrived in Times Square with two suitcases and a dream, like Mary Tyler Moore dropped into the market scene from Blade Runner. She now lives in the East Village with her family and hasn’t gotten bored yet.

John Newton is a freelance editor, travel writer, and AFAR Ambassador. Raised in California, he has lived in New York City for almost 25 years (currently in Williamsburg, Brooklyn) and is always ready to explore the city he calls home.

>>Next: NYC’s Neighborhoods Not to Miss

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